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GOP senators in tight races embrace sharply different Supreme Court strategies

One is taking a stand against an immediate vote. Others are leaning in to the fight, and campaigning on it. Still others are proceeding with extreme caution.
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WASHINGTON — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death has put the Supreme Court at the forefront of the 2020 election battle, and about a dozen Republican senators facing competitive races are caught in the crossfire.

They face different constituencies this fall, and as a result they’re taking varying approaches to what is certain to be an ugly confirmation battle for President Donald Trump’s nominee, who Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., promised Monday would get a vote even though he blocked President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick for nearly a year during the last presidential election cycle.

While operatives in both parties are testing messages, Republican senators in tough re-election fights are warily looking over their shoulder in anticipation of a politically explosive confirmation process. As the party defends its 53-to-47 majority against a Democratic onslaught this fall, they’re betting on different strategies to navigate the complicated politics.

Here’s how they break down:

Just say no

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the first Republican to state plainly after Ginsburg’s death that the winner of the 2020 election should pick the next justice, and that she’d follow the 2016 standard her party imposed on Obama. She cited "the proximity of the presidential election" and the need to act “fairly and consistently.”

Collins’ line in the sand comes as she seeks to revive her independent brand, which has taken a beating as she has sided on many issues with a president who’s deeply unpopular in her state. A recent poll of Maine voters by The New York Times/Siena found opponent Sara Gideon leading Collins by 5 points, buoyed by an 8-point advantage among independents.

Collins is the only senator facing re-election this year who has drawn that line. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has taken a similar position, but she doesn’t face voters until 2022.

Lean in and fight

Within 24 hours of Ginsburg’s death, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina came out strongly in favor of filling the vacancy and made the issue a prominent feature of his race against the Democrat, Cal Cunningham, who narrowly leads in polls.

Tillis, notably, is running several points behind Trump in North Carolina and has worked to show his loyalty to the president and win over his followers.

“One of the challenges that he may face is a lingering concern from Republicans that he hadn’t always supported Trump enough,” said Charles Hellwig, a political consultant and former chair of the Wake County GOP. “It might be to send a signal to the Republican base that if you have any hesitation, let me clear it up here.”

In the neighboring state of South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham faces an unexpectedly competitive re-election bid and finds himself at the center of the action as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees court nominations.

In 2016, Graham vowed not to support a Republican court pick in 2020 during election season and invited critics to “use my words against me.” Now he has reversed course, informing Judiciary Committee Democrats in a letter Monday that he intends to move forward with hearings on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. He said that “after the treatment of Justice Kavanaugh I now have a different view of the judicial-confirmation process.”

Graham and other Republicans are working to stay on Trump's good side.

Other Republicans who quickly embraced the idea of moving forward with a Trump nominee were Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona and Sen. David Perdue of Georgia.

Take it slow, get to yes

Numerous Republican senators are watching their backs.

After staying mostly quiet during the weekend, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, two top Democratic targets, came out Monday for proceeding with Trump’s nominee, which he said will be announced on Saturday.

Their statements all but assure that Trump’s pick will receive a vote.

It’s a tricky calculation for Gardner and Ernst, who have stayed close to Trump in the hope of securing strong support from his base. But that approach has alienated independents and left them trailing their Democratic opponents with six weeks to go.

“If you’re going to roughly follow Trump anyway, maybe the two different strategies are to quickly come out like Tillis did, or kind of wax philosophical like Ernst is doing — show everyone you’ll think about it, but in the end you’ll probably do the same thing,” Hellwig said.

But those senators will be confronted with aggressive attacks from Democrats that their votes could signal the death of Obamacare — which survived 5-4 in 2012 with Ginsburg’s vote and is headed back to the court — and cost tens of millions of people their insurance.

“It’s salient to Americans right now because they can recognize the urgency on the court taking up Obamacare and pre-existing conditions as early as Nov. 10,” said J.B. Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC, the largest Democratic group focused on winning Senate races. “It just makes obvious what the stakes are for the court.”